What inspired you to write about the War of Roses?
I have loved the late Middle Ages since childhood – the world conjured up by Malory in the Morte d’Arthurand later by Huizinga in the Waning of the Middle Agesand in T.H. White’s tetralogy the Once and Future King. I love the colour, flamboyance and ritualised violence: heraldry, falconry, jousting and so on.
I really didn’t know anything about this period of time before reading your book, but it was a nice surprise to find King Arthur folklore scattered through your book (ones I wasn’t familiar with). Why did you decide to include these stories?
In the fifteenth century there really was a cult of Arthur and the Round Table for purposes of royal propaganda. And, of course, this was subject matter for Malory’s great epic romance in which, perhaps, bloody feuds and slaughters of the Wars of the Roses were turned into something much more noble and romantic. Looking at the question from another point of view, I am a novelist and a novelist must be interested in storytelling. I wanted to tackle the questions raised by storytelling head on: storytelling as lying propaganda, how do people respond to stories? do bad people listening to stories nevertheless identify with the heroic goodies? what were the tropes and cliches of medieval romances? storytelling as a preparation for death, and so on. Malory’s stories are marvellous in both senses of the word. He was a good writer who celebrated virtue, yet also a bad man.
What was it about Anthony that made you write the book from his point of view?
Anthony Woodville seemed to me to be a gift for any writer looking for a protagonist: the brother of the Queen, a leading protagonist in the Wars of the Roses, a champion jouster and a man of high culture and one of the first patrons of print technology.
I read that you taught medieval history, what sort of research was involved in writing this book?
My background as a former university lecturer in medieval history was not as much use as one might imagine, since I only taught European medieval history and covered such boring topics as Capetian fiscal policy, the Investiture Contest between the Hohenstaufen and the Papacy and the Filioque controversy. But I did accumulate a lot of books on medieval history and eventually researched the Wars of the Roses from a standing start. I think the preliminary research must be the most pleasurable part of doing a novel. I research for inspiration rather than strict factual accuracy.
I loved the subtle magic that creeped into the book, how did you decide where to add it? What inspired Anthony’s resurrection? And where did the idea for the Talking Head come from?
I did not actually make up Anthony’s resurrection. It really was reported after Towton that he had been killed and only later was he found to be alive. His mother, Jacquetta, really did have a reputation as a witch and so it seemed a reasonable possibility that she had given him him a life-preserving amulet. Some of the other magic comes from Malory or from English folklore, but quite a lot comes from medieval Arab occultism (on which I am an expert). For example the spell for the Talking Head comes from a medieval Arabic manual of sorcery the Ghayat al-Hakim, later translated into Latin as Picatrix.
After finishing your book, I went online to read more about the war and the historical figures ( I waited until I finished because I didn’t want any spoilers), and I read about the mystery behind Elizabeth and Edward’s children’s deaths, and that Jacquetta and Richard had 14 children. Were there parts of the history that you had to leave out, but considered including?
Indeed the main thing I cut out was members of the Woodville clan, some of whom were politically quite important, but there was just too many of them for a novelist to handle.
Ripley was such an interesting character to read, how did you create his elaborate story telling abilities?
Ripley really was an alchemist in the service of Edward IV and some his alchemical treatises really were disguised pieces of Yorkist propaganda. But much of Ripley’s storytelling ability comes from his skill as a plagiarist. He steals from Dante, from Julian of Norwich, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the finest poem in the English language) and from Malory. He boasts about his plagiarism. There was a lot of plagiarism about in the Middle Ages.
Were any of your characters made-up, or were they all based on real figures?
Almost everybody featured really existed, even Ripley, Scogin and the Coterel gang. Sergeant Raker is main exception. The combat with the Bastard of Burgundy is almost exactly as described in the chronicles.
Who was your favourite character to bring to life?
Ripley was my favourite. Apart from the real alchemist, he was based on a young man who gave me medical treatment and was always sunny, smiling and praising me for my stoicism. Besides, Ripley is an apprentice novelist.